The day was surprising. It was Sunday, but rather than gathering in a space set aside for the worship of God (in my tradition it’s called a “church”), I was sitting in front of this screen at my computer. I was “streaming” the internet feed from St. Simons Island, from my beloved parish of Christ Church.
It was fascinating. The church house was mostly empty of the regular menagerie of “all sorts and conditions”, limited to the priest, a few choir members, and the organist. The camera caught their entrance as they entered the sacred space, accompanied by the organ. It’s a good bet none of the founders of this old Episcopal church would or could have conceived a day like today. They, of course, had moved through a variety of diseases in their day, but never thought of live-streaming from their tiny island home to a satellite circling above, bouncing down to a variety of spots across the globe. Pretty cool.
Because of the pandemic, Christ Church was compassionately practicing this thing we are calling social distancing, that is, not gathering in large groups, keeping a distance of six feet between us. Six Feet…..how can we remember to keep six feet between us? Wait. I got it. Six feet under! That’ll stick, right?
That’s called gallows humor, a humor we resort to when facing dire circumstances. It’s a defense mechanism to help us make it through the night, our fears, our anxieties. The priest at Christ Church, Father Tom, joked at the beginning of the service by reporting that the original hymn chosen for the morning had been, Breathe On Me, Breath of God, which they decided to change given the circumstances. Now, that’s funny. It broke my own serious mood and got me in touch with my deep Self that can see humor in just about any situation, some that my wife would claim are inappropriate. I am thinking about starting a new column, entitled Gallow’s Humor!
I was frankly surprised at the sense of connection I felt through the odd medium of worship. The hymns felt a bit odd, not being there in the middle to feel the communal sense of voice. But I felt connected. The odd piece was being able to respond to what was going on through the “comment” function on the Facebook app. allowing me to send a heart or shed a tear without fear of contamination, or the Episcopal equivalent of sharing human emotion. I noted to my fellow cyber congregants that this was the Episcopal emoji form of saying “Amen”! The sharing of the Peace with one another was strangely moving, seeming less perfunctory that the normal Episcopal way of a wink and a nod.
The part of the service, Communion, was less than satisfactory as you would expect. You could hear the words, watch the actions, but you obviously could not receive the physical sacrament, the heart of the sacramental system of worship with the sensory experience of taking in the bread and wine. It left me feeling like I sometimes do watching Ina Garten on the Food Network, wishing one could taste and smell the wonderful fare she is creating in her kitchen. But that, my friends, is beyond current technology.
All in all, it was a win. I felt a sense of connection to other human beings in my community of faith, rather than feeling a deep sense of isolation. There will be learnings and creative additions that will come and may enhance this remote experience at this time. We did this out of compassion for the larger community, both providing an opportunity for connection while at the same time practicing the pragmatic social distancing. How long will this go on? No one knows, but my sense is that this has been a game changer. Much as 9/11 broke us from the illusion that terrorism is something that happens in the Middle East, over “there”, we now are well aware that we are vulnerable. Our mindset and our practice has altered. In a similar way, my hunch is our mindset on infectious control will shift profoundly. There have always been germaphobes around, like Howie Mandel, and my Southside friend, Julie, but that was just fun. This is not.
I grew up with a biologist for my mother which meant I was aware of lots of stuff normal people are blissfully unaware. My childhood friend, Danny, could tell you about how my Mom thought Ivory Soap could solve most problems, namely my dirty mouth. I found and read a textbook on human reproduction when I was seven, which will be my main defense when I meet my Maker. My mom had me dissecting frogs at an early age, and was unusually sensitive to food safety due to dastardly microbes lurking. Frankly, I am surprised I am not more screwed up than I am. How many mothers introduce their children to Darwin in the crib?
My conversation with my musician son and bride-to-be daughter revealed how inadequately I have prepared them as opposed to the stellar job of my maternal unit. Explaining simple cell biology in the age of corona is more existential than I remember in my education. It turns into an existential exercise, reminding us of life and death.
So we now are living in a new time, more aware of our surrounding microbes and our vulnerability. We are wisely living more cautiously, washing our hands, maintaining a six foot distance, avoiding groups of more than ten. But what other changes CAN happen to maximize the down time it seems is upon us?
One, I am recommending that we CONNECT!. While we are trying to maintain spatial distance, we have the capacity to connect through these things called phones and social media.
I took time today to call a few people from my past that I have been disconnected in my relationship. One was an old priest friend of mine, who is now retired in Rome, Georgia. We shared a house one summer on the ridge in Sewanee, Tennessee, overlooking a glorious valley, with hawks circling in the blue mountain air. I had not seen or talked to Don since seeing him and his wife at the Garrison Keillor show at the Fox over three years ago. Our reconnect was quick, getting back to a sense of linkage, rehearsing stories, telling a few lies about our halcyon days, but sharing that most human dimension that we have for each other: love.
This week, I have put aside an hour each day to reach out to folks I had been missing because of my everyday busyness and business. What a gift to me if I could keep that routine for the next few weeks. I might even live to tell about it. Who might be on your list to make a surprise call? Doesn’t have to be long, doesn’t have to be earth-moving. Just take the time to make that call. Make your list NOW.
Another type of connection might be to people who you may suspect are feeling isolated. There may be people in your family, your church, your former community, people who may be feeling unusually alone at this time. Again, make a list and call.
Connecting using social media is a good way to use the time. My wife teaches dyslexic students and in this wild west time of schools shutting down, she has mastered a Google app to connect her students from their homes each morning. I watch as they come online, thrilled to see each others face appear, to see their friend afresh. Now, remember that these are very young children, they are dyslexic which means they are real smart but easily distracted. You might pray for them, my wife, light a candle for their learning in the time of corona, and offer thanks to God for the “mute” button.
I connect on social media, mostly using Facebook. I have to discipline myself to limit my involvement but I do enjoy exchanging songs and artists with a cadre of friends. I try not to get too involved with politics or religion, reminding myself that I used to get paid real money to put up with rude, ill-tempered people when I was their priest, rather than responding in the way I would like. But social media, namely Facebook, has been how I have reconnected with my high school friends who were dispersed to the four winds. It’s how I keep up with former classmates and fraternity brothers, with former parishioners and colleagues. Used well, it’s a great way of connection and overcoming distance in space and time.
A friend of mine has started an online Facebook group to provide some connection during this odd time of corona. Its purpose is to creatively gather people around how to cope with our disconnection. There have been some fascinating attempts to connect, attempts that renew my confidence and trust in our resilience as a country and as a species. Find a group, or start your own. Smart creative churches will find ways to make this happen in expressions of connection we have never imagined. Bet on it.
Finally, connect through this blog, South of God. Write me a note of reply, tell me what’s going on with you. What’s working well, what are you struggling with, what are your hopes for the next chapter in your life, what are your fears? Whatever, I would love to hear from you. Or if you desire privacy, use my email address at firstname.lastname@example.org .
We are all in this time together. Maybe this crisis will bring some clarity as to who we are as a people. Perhaps we will come together like we did at 9/11 and become ONE again like we were. Or maybe not. Maybe, this will drive us apart further as our differences become clearer and the fault lines deepen. We’ll just have to see. But you, YOU, have this time, this time of corona. What will you do with it?